Chapter 1


            With a metallic whirring and clicking, a rickety bike wheezed forward—stopping, with some relief, at the push of a pedal from a green high-top. One last clank of its gears, and it rested against a cast-iron fence. The shoe, of course, belonged to a person; a young man that was now striding up the pavement with his hands in his jean pockets.

            The boy wouldn’t take his eyes off the house he was approaching—with good reason. The house was archaic, Victorian, and easily the most immense on this side of town. In fact, the structure itself was probably the size of his college’s science building. His mother’s house could fit inside twice comfortably.

            A wide porch snaked around the base, vines crawled up the brick façade, and the lush green lawn crept longer than two of his own yards. Ornate stone carvings of leaves and cherubs framed the windows. Rose bushes and primroses were planted all along both sides of the house. The attic window, at the very top, was an intricate circular rose window.

            The windows stared at him blankly, row after row of mirrors watching his progress blearily. He had thought for a moment—well, of course it was the fading evening light playing on the glass—but it had looked almost like someone was moving in the attic window. He averted his eyes, quickening his pace up the cobblestone drive.

            Technically, this house was owned by the Connelly family, but everyone in town knew it as the Wells House—or perhaps “estate” was a more appropriate term. The Wells family had built it in the eighteen hundreds, living in it a generation or two and showing off their fabulous wealth, but sometime in the turn of the century something happened. There was still much dissent among the neighbors who still told it as a legend to anyone desperate for gossip, but all agreed on one important fact: a girl had died in this house, and there was little doubt that she’d done the job herself.

            The tale was hazy apart from this; everyone told it differently and embellished it with their own details. One family had bought it from the Wellses, then another, and then another, but no one stayed long.

            The tragedy had long since become fairy tale, myth, yet it still drew fascination from children and newcomers to the neighborhood.

            This boy was neither a child nor a newcomer—he’d heard it all a hundred times; he hardly believed in ghost stories anymore—so he drew himself up, pushed his glasses farther up his nose, and stepped up onto the porch.

            When he rang the doorbell, the door opened almost immediately; a little girl with blonde ringlets had apparently been standing behind it.

            “Mark!”she cried in evident delight, eyes widening with her smile.

            “Hey, Cecilia,” he grinned. “Are your parents home?”

            She opened the door farther to let him enter. “They’re about to leave.”

            The entryway was just as old-fashioned and impressive—the ceiling was high as a cathedral, a crystal chandelier sparkling near the top, a wide polished staircase greeting them. The chandelier was original to the structure, completely restored, but of course light bulbs were added instead of gas lamps.

            The place is practically a museum, Mark thought. It’s like nothing’s changed in here since the olden days.

             Farther off, in the direction of the kitchen, voices echoed back to the hallway.

            “Hello, Mark, we’re in here—but we’re almost ready to leave—,”

            “We’ll have our cell phones in case you need to call; the number’s on the fridge—,”

            “Don’t let the kids stay up past ten o’clock—,”

            “Have them stay inside; I think it’s supposed to rain.”

            By the time Mark reached the kitchen, both of the parents had thrown most of their directions at him already. Mrs. Connelly was donning a trench coat; Mr. Connelly was lacing up his shoes.

            The kitchen was a strange jolt from the rest of the house: instead of only original (or good replicas of original) pieces, it was filled with modern, stainless steel appliances that could not have been initially in the Victorian design. The refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, and granite countertops were all discontinuous with the otherwise traditional-themed house.

            “Thank you so much, by the way,” Mrs. Connelly smiled at Mark as she smoothed her hair—perfectly blonde, straight from the box.

            “Not at all,” he said. He babysat for them often.

            “We’ve got to go, the show’s starting at eight,” Mr. Connelly said. The two rushed out the door, waving good-bye to Mark and kissing the tops of their daughters’ heads. Anna, the elder, shut the door behind them. They heard the SUV pull out of the garage and speed down the street.

            It was a fairly easy job, as Mark had anticipated. Both girls had already decided on a movie to watch; all he had to do was make popcorn and draw up a chair. They were well-behaved, and went to bed afterwards without complaint.

            The sky opened up with a torrent of rain by then, as Mrs. Connelly predicted. Creaking and shaking, the house protested the storm almost as loudly as the rumbling thunder overhead.

            Mark shivered, listening to the faraway pounding of rain against the shingles.

            Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a stupid storm—just water, clouds, and static electricity. Nothing more than that.

            But the shiver wouldn’t leave, creeping up the back of his neck like an icy hand was there.

            He jumped up from his chair and paced, hoping to ease his disquiet. With quick, purposeful strides, he wandered the hallways, as if he had somewhere important to go.

            This was clearly a mistake, he realized. He’d come across the music room, all the windows draped in long curtains, the piano casting uneven shadows on the floor. Once, he’d wondered why the girls shared a room in such a large house, but now he had no doubt they’d begged their mother to stay together.

            He withdrew from the room and wandered some more. The next room was the formal dining room. A flicker of lightning illuminated the space momentarily, shining off the long, polished table, the candlesticks’ shadows to sharpen.

            He shuddered again, wondering how anyone in the world could live in a place so huge, how anyone could think of this place as home. Well, obviously the people who’d built it liked houses like this—the girl who died here might have thought the house was cozy compared to some mansions, he supposed.

            “M-Mark?” The timid, trembling voice didn’t startle him as much as it might have, as he’d been expecting it. Turning around, he smiled and knelt by Cecilia’s side.

            “Cecilia, it’s just a storm—just noise.” Even as he said the words with a kindly parental patronization, they were as much to reassure himself as her.

            “I’m n-n-not scared of the s-storm,” stuttered Cecilia, blonde curls quivering.

            Before he could open his mouth to comfort her some more, Anna appeared in the doorway, wringing the ends of her braids.

            “I can’t believe you left me alone up there!” she said reproachfully to her sister.

            “Girls, if you’re scared, you can sleep down here—,”

            “We’re not scared of the storm,” interrupted Anna with authority. “We’re scared of her.”

            A flash of lightning outlined the girls’ faces sharply, and he could see they were perfectly serious—Cecilia’s eyes were round as quarters.

            “Her?” he repeated dubiously.

            “There’s someone in our room, Mark,” Cecilia whispered.

            “A lady in a long white dress,” added Anna. Her voice shook ever so slightly, and Mark knew she was truly afraid.

            “What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice sounding strange and high to his ears. “There’s no way into this house but the front door, which is locked—the burglar alarm would have gone off. I think you’re getting a little too imaginative. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll come up and look around. Okay?”

            They each took one of his hands and led him up the stairs slowly and tremulously. Each stair groaned and complained at their approach.

            It was odd…they’d said her, and Mark had already been thinking about the girl who’d lived here…who’d died here…

            When they reached the second-floor landing, an unpleasant prickling had slithered all over him, like spiders were creeping up and down his back. If someone was in the house, what would he do? His legs were wooden by now, his body rigid as lead from fright.

            Don’t be ridiculous, he repeated over and over in his head desperately. It’s just a stupid, creaky old house, and this is as cliché as a horror movie. Get a grip. They’re just seeing things because they’re kids.

            They came to a stop at the bedroom door.

            With a light touch, the door swung open, and Mark hastily flipped on the light switch in the same second. The room was bright and startlingly benign. Two brass railed beds, unkempt and ruffled, the antique dollhouse, and the lightly fluttering curtains— everything seemed to be in its place.

            “Nothing in here except furniture,” said Mark with a sigh of relief as he scanned the bedroom.

            Cecilia tugged at his sleeve and pointed to the window. “If nothing’s in here, what’s making the curtains move? The windows are closed.”

            Before he could scramble for a scientific explanation, Anna flipped off the light switch.

            The trio gasped.

            Standing in the center of the room was a lady.

            She couldn’t have been real—she wasn’t solid exactly; she looked more like fluid, like air, and the window behind her could be seen. Though faint, her silhouette radiated a pale luminescence.

            Mark stepped back and snapped the door shut.

            “Someone’s playing a joke on us,” he said stiffly, his eyebrows furrowed. “I’ll go in and check it out, but you two stay right here.”

            The girls flattened against the opposite wall, petrified. He had the absurd sensation that his pounding heart was climbing up to his throat.

            He shut the door behind him as he entered, his eyes on the inexplicable specter in the center of the room. As soon as he stepped inside, a strange feeling came over him—like he had stepped into a refrigerator. The icy feeling filled his lungs and left his limbs numb. Ignoring this, he searched the room with clumsy haste, searching for some source of the illusion; a projector, a camera, anything that might explain what he was seeing.

            Meanwhile, the phantom simply stood there, apparently oblivious to his presence, her long dress swaying.

            Mark’s vain search was becoming hopeless when he realized a tiny sound was filling the room, like a radio tuning in—and the lady had begun to move her lips.

            “Help,” she whispered in a silvery voice that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. “Is anyone out there? Can’t anyone hear me?” Her whisper was so light, so airy, it felt like a breeze, but it was tinged with desperation.

            He spun around and stared at her, suddenly transfixed.

            She was a young girl, he noticed, probably eighteen or so. Tears—pearly white and transparent—coursed down her cheeks steadily. Tendrils of curly hair blew around her face in the same direction as her dress, as if she was caught in an unseen wind. Dimly, he noted that she was very beautiful, and the sight of her was inexplicably heartbreaking.

            “Who are you?”

            The question left Mark feeling utterly stupid; why was he talking to it? It could only be a kind of optical illusion, not a real person.

            But her eyes widened, and she turned to lock gazes with him.

            “Did you just say something?” she asked, voice even more breathless with shock.

            Numbly, he nodded.

            She took an incredulous step towards him, and the sudden iciness filled his lungs again, taking his breath away—but he was too stunned to run away.

            “You can hear me?” she asked, frowning disbelievingly. “You see me?”

            He nodded again shakily.

            “Who are you?” she said, repeating his question.

            Mark finally regained possession of his muscles—he backed up against the wall. “I think the question is, what are you?” he asked, his voice sounded a bit strangled.

            The specter opened her mouth, but then closed it, a frown crossing her face again.

            “Are—are you a ghost?” he asked uncertainly. Immediately, he snapped his mouth shut, regretting such a childish suggestion.

            “Yes,” she said, looking down and sighing, “but you didn’t tell me who are you are. Or why you’re in my house?”

            “Your house?” he repeated, the phrase catching him by surprise.

            The girl folded her arms across her chest, stepping closer to him. “This house was mine long ago, when I was alive. I’ve been calling for help for so long, you wouldn’t believe, but you’re the first to hear…”

            “What were you crying for?”

            She was only a foot away from Mark now, her translucent face still morose. “I need to set something right. I can’t be free until I do. So long as the lie continues, I’m chained to this earth.” She swallowed, and her face grew pained. “Are you afraid of me?”

            Mark’s throat felt like something had lodged itself in there; he could hardly speak. But he made as gallant an effort to lie as he could. “N-no…”

            “I’m not going to hurt you or anything,” she said, her voice hardly above a whisper. “I know you’ve probably never seen a ghost before—trust me, I didn’t even believe in them until I found myself here. We’ve only got a bad name because people are so afraid of death, you see?”

            Mark still couldn’t speak—he was still too incredulous. This couldn’t be real; this was impossible.

            “What is your name?” she asked him.

            “M-Mark,” he answered unsteadily.

            The girl smiled hesitantly, reaching out a tiny white hand to touch him.

            He jumped back as far as he could—but it didn’t matter: her hand went right through him, and all he felt was cold air.

            “You’re real,” she breathed to herself. “You’re alive.”

            Her eyes snapped back to his, and she smiled apologetically. “Forgive me,” she said, seeming to come back to reality. “It’s just that I haven’t spoken to a real, living person in so long—I was beginning to go mad.”

            “You’re her, aren’t you?” Mark realized slowly, the amazed words coming, unbidden, out of his mouth like they were someone else’s words. “You’re the girl that died here, aren’t you?”

            The girl gave a short, bitter laugh. “So they still talk about me, do they?”

            “Uh…well, it’s kind of become urban legend, I guess,” he said nervously, fidgeting with his glasses.

            The girl didn’t seem surprised.

            “What do they—”

            The girl cut off in the middle of her sentence, looking towards the doorway. Faintly, Mark heard noises from downstairs—the adults had returned home, and were clomping around the kitchen with unnecessary clattering.

            She froze like a deer in the headlights, eyes wide. “The people that live here are home,” she whispered. “They cannot know I am here—you understand, don’t you? They’d make me leave if they knew. I can’t be made to leave this house, not now.”

            “I won’t tell,” Mark promised dazedly.

            She bit her lip. “Will you come back—please? Please. I need your help, and I cannot stand another century of loneliness.”

            “S-sure,” he stammered quickly. “I’ll come back, I promise.”

            She smiled, letting out a relieved breath. “Thank you,” she breathed. “What a gentleman. I’ll be in the attic—I don’t like frightening the children.”

            “Wait—what’s your name?”

            She smiled. “Estella,” she said. “Estella Wells.”

            With that, she dissolved into a white mist and ascended through the ceiling with a whoosh.

            Mark stared, dumbstruck, for at least five minutes before he could move.


Chapter 2


            One hundred years before Mark entered the Wells House, someone else had walked up the drive with a very different feeling.

            The girl carried a suitcase and a hatbox in her hands, walking as quickly as her high heeled-boots would allow. She was very sophisticated: her dark curly hair was pulled up in an elegant knot, covered with a large red hat with silk flowers on it. She was wearing one of the latest fashions from London—multiple petticoats, a corset she could hardly breathe in, and a wide bustle, all underneath a high-necked maroon dress that went nearly to the ground.

             Beside her, a middle-aged man with a bushy moustache carried two more suitcases and kept offering to carry a third.

            “I can carry them just fine, Father!” she said, laughing exasperatedly. “You have enough to carry, anyways.”

            Her father chuckled. “Alright, alright,” he conceded. “Everyone’s so excited you’ve come home—no one in town would stop asking me when you were returning.”

            The girl smiled, sighing happily as she looked at the approaching house. She had enjoyed her years away at finishing school, but coming home again at last was so satisfying, like a bubble was growing inside her. “I’ve missed everyone, too,” she said softly, still smiling.

            Roland, the butler, opened the door for them with professional politeness, and offered to take Miss Wells’ suitcases to her room, which he then did. The wide, grand foyer made the girl feel wonderful—the brass candelabras, the polished oak floors, the thick Persian carpet, the bronze Cupid statue with a plate for holding calling cards, and the elaborate floor-to-ceiling mirror—all of it made her feel like royalty.

            Several people were waiting in the hall for her.

            “Estella, dear, welcome home!” cried one of them, throwing their arms around her immediately. She was a stout, maternal sort of woman, dressed simply in a brown dress, her eyes crinkling at the corners with her smile.

            Estella hugged her back. “I missed you, Mrs. Lake.”

            “We all missed you, dear,” said Mrs. Lake, releasing her.

            Behind her, a thin, graying woman smiled, though it didn’t touch her eyes. “Welcome back, Estella,” she said politely. She was Estella’s stepmother, and their relationship was not close—merely cordial. Her lips were pressed together in suppressed annoyance; she didn’t approve of Estella’s familiarity with their housekeeper, Mrs. Lake.

            “Thank you, Marta,” Estella replied with equal civility.

            Though Marta was wearing an expensive black silk dress and an ivory brooch, things she had received upon her marriage to Mr. Wells, she still looked rather plain.

            Beside her, a slight, sickly boy smiled timidly.

            “Hello, Estella, how was Europe?” he asked.

            Estella smiled. Her younger stepbrother, Peter, was very fond of her, and she found it endearing.

            “It was wonderful, thank you,” she smiled, “but I’m very glad to be home.”

            In the background sulking, stood her older stepbrother, Adam. He nodded curtly at her.

            She had expected nothing different. Adam resented her, and she did not like him either. Ever since they were children, they had detested each other. Of course, none of this was ever mentioned in front of Marta or Mr. Wells.

            “Well, why don’t you get upstairs and rest, dear?” said her father. “You’ve had a long trip. Supper will be ready in a half hour.”

            “Alright, thank you,” she said, heading for the stairs. She gazed around the sweeping staircase in wonder. She had never fully appreciated how magnificent it was. She could not suppress her relieved smile, because she was—finally—in her own house again, with her own family. Nothing could go wrong now.


Chapter 3


            Mark left the room in a daze. “Well, um, girls, I don’t think you have to worry about the lady anymore. She’s gone.”

            “Where did she go?” asked Anna eagerly.

            “The attic,” he said in a voice that sounded strange to him. “Er, I better go, your parents are home. Go back to bed now.”

            The girls obeyed, and Mark walked numbly back downstairs. He found it very difficult to talk normally with their parents, to assure them that the girls had only been a little frightened of the storm, and to accept his pay with an adequately normal response. He walked down the street, still frozen, getting drenched as he ducked into his house. His mother was out, thankfully.

            He lay across his bed, still in his soaked jacket and muddy chucks, looking up at the ceiling, trying to concentrate on the ceiling fan whirring around instead of the tangled thoughts in his head. He must have imagined it, somehow. He hadn’t had anything to drink, he wasn’t on any medication, let alone something that could produce hallucinations, and he had no reason to have suddenly gone mad. Had the girls’ story somehow convinced his subconscious mind that he was seeing what they’d said, due to his nervousness about the storm? Was that even possible?

            It was a lot more plausible than the idea that he’d actually just had a conversation with a ghost. That, of course, made no sense. Mark’s world was fairly neat and explainable, rather ordinary and logical. This, on the other hand, was insane. A ghost in a creepy old turn-of-the-century house, which happened to be down the street from him—the idea was completely ludicrous.  Perhaps he was so tired, and all those stories about the girl who had committed suicide had somehow—

            Wait a second. Mark sat bolt upright, his heart pounding. That ghost—well, the illusion, whatever it had been—had said she’d died right at that spot, just like the stories said! And she’d told Mark her name…

            Mark was out the door again in minutes, clambering on his rickety bike and sloshing through the puddles, trying to see through the rain and his fogged up glasses. This part he could verify. This part, however small a part, he could treat scientifically, and that gave him comfort.

            He reached the library in five minutes. It was eight thirty, and he was thankful that it would be a half an hour before it closed—and that he hadn’t been struck by lightning yet. The library was a familiar place to him, as he came here at least once a week.

             He walked to the counter (the stuffy old librarian scowled at him for tracking in all the mud and water) and asked in a quiet voice, though slightly out of breath, if she could show him where the old newspapers were.

            “Don’t know what you want with them,” she huffed impatiently, leading him to the newspaper and magazine section. “Usually you’re just fine with your novels and reference books…Well, here are the old papers, this shelf starts with 1900 and they go down from there by year.” Mark rather thought she was merely upset he’d interrupted her in the middle of her Danielle Steele novel.

            “Thanks,” he said absentmindedly, looking through the obituaries of the top one. It took a while, but after some diligent searching, he found something in the year 1906. It was a short obituary, it just said, “Estella Rosalind Wells, 1888-1906.  She is dearly missed by her friends and family. This is the one month anniversary of her death.”

            So Estella was a real girl, then. At least that much was real. How could he have imagined the whole thing if he hadn’t known the girl’s name before, and it had just happened to be right…?

            He searched through the rest of the papers, wondering if he could find the story of her death in another newspaper. Finally, after much crunching of yellowed, aged paper, he found—on July 16th’s paper—a screaming headline:


            There was a subheading beneath it as well. Estella Wells, 18, was found hung by the neck in her bedroom this morning. Believed to have died by her own hand.

            There was a rotogravure photograph below the bold headline—and Mark stopped still.

            It was the same girl. There could be no doubt; it was the same girl he had met in the Connelly’s house. How could anyone mistake that proud, beautiful smile, or piercing dark eyes? Even with the poor-quality black-and-white film, it was unmistakably her.

            His heart thudded. This was impossible.

            He read on.

            The story itself gave Mark continuous chills down his spine. Perhaps this was why she had been crying; she might regret taking her life so young. But why had she committed suicide in the first place, he wondered? He read closely, his nose almost touching the crackly paper and his square glasses sliding down his nose.

            As he read on, however, he began to understand. Estella had been engaged to be married in just a few weeks, in a marriage her father had arranged out of social and economic convenience, and she had been unhappy about the match. There had been a note on her bedside table, saying that this had been her reason for killing herself…

            Mark shuddered, putting the paper back in its rightful shelf.

            All the way home, he kept seeing curtains moving in the windows of his neighbors’ houses, and he kept imagining them as a hundred hanging ghosts, flapping in the wind. He made it home with some difficulty.

            Halfway through his front hall, a voice called to him.

            “Mark, honey?” his mother called. “Is that you?”

            Glancing at the warm yellow light of the kitchen, he saw his mother with suds up to her elbows, in the middle of washing the dishes in the sink. She smiled hesitantly at him, her pretty, lined face framed by close-cut honey hair.

            “Mark, are you okay?” she asked when he didn’t answer, her smile faltering.

            He ran his hand through his hair, trying to put his thoughts back together and form a coherent response. “Yeah…sorry, Mom…I’m really tired, I’m just going to go to bed.”

            He bounded up the stairs, leaving his mother staring after him with a slightly concerned look.

            Back in his room, he changed into some dry clothes at last and stared out the window at the dark street, trying to make sense of it all. There was no explanation left for the mysterious apparition, not one that he could think of at the moment. Even as his churning mind tried to rebel against the possibility of his actually seeing a ghost, he knew he would come back. He knew that—as confused and frightened as he was—he would want to return to the house and see the girl again, if she was truly there.

            That night, he slept fitfully. There were strange white figures on the edges of his dreams, always unreachable and indiscernible. He could not rid his mind of the thought of ghostly brides on the end of a noose.

Chapter 4


            Her father slammed his fist on the table. “Estella, you’re almost eighteen. You haven’t even courted a single man, though many of them would be perfectly willing. Philip is a good man—he would take good care of you.”

            “Father, I hardly know him,” she protested. “And this is not the Dark Ages; a lady is allowed to fall in love and marry the man she wants. This is the twentieth century!”

            “There are many fathers who would not tolerate their daughters to speak like that to them,” Mr. Wells growled. “Perhaps I spoil you too much.”

            “Father,” Estella said, more slowly and with determined politeness. “I don’t mean any disrespect, truly. I know Philip is a kind man, and he would certainly not mistreat me. But he’s only been calling on me for a month—and you want me to marry him already? We barely know each other, and this courtship was not exactly my choice in the first place…”

            Her father’s face softened. “I know you’re nervous about commitment so early. But your mother and I didn’t see each other for very long, and we had no regrets.”

            “But I don’t love him.”

            The words sounded much more blunt, even uncaring, once out of her mouth and echoing around the dining room, but she couldn’t make herself deny them.

            Mr. Wells frowned. “I am absolutely sure you could grow to love him. He’s such a nice young fellow, and handsome too. Surely he will grow on you.”

            “But what if we’re just not right for each other?” she pleaded. “Shouldn’t a marriage be based on love and loyalty?”

            “Now, don’t tell me you believe in the sort of nonsense as ‘true love’ and all that? A marriage can work if you have a mind to work at it, and you’ll have a good life together, undoubtedly.”

            Estella sighed. “That doesn’t mean you can’t love your husband first.”

            Mr. Wells’ frown deepened. “Do you have a reason in particular that you don’t want to marry Philip? Is there someone else?”

            She sighed again and shook her head. “No. There isn’t anyone else.” In her mind, she added the words, Just the prospect of someone else—only the hope of finding actual love.

            She supposed that her ideas of love had been rather romantic and silly, but her image of her own engagement and marriage had been so very different…

            “Then you do not have any reason to say no to him. He comes from a good family—“

            “Is that what this is about?” she burst out. “His family is so popular, and you’ll be included in all their parties? His father’s business and yours will get to merge, and you’ll have a male heir that knows how to handle a company—is that why you want me to marry him?”

            Her father bristled. “Young lady, I want you to marry him because it’s a good match, and you’ll do well to do as you’re told. And you ought not to question your father’s judgment. The two of you will grow to love each other—perhaps he already does fancy you. Philip doesn’t mind the idea of marrying you, and you shouldn’t dwell on selfish dreams.”

            Estella gritted her teeth. “This is not the Medieval Age. I don’t love him. I don’t want to marry him.”
            “Humor me, please, sweetheart. You’ll see that I’m right.”

            Of course, wealthy people always want to keep money and social status in the family.

            “Papa…” she pleaded quietly. She hadn’t called him that in many years, and he realized it. His face softened again for an instant, and then the stern look was back in place.

            “Now, Estella, please. This is important to me. I know you’ll be glad in the end, if you just listen to me. And this is final: you will give him an answer tomorrow, and you will tell him yes.”

            His edict was so final, Estella knew she had lost.

Chapter 5


            Mark was feeling a little edgy as he awoke to a sunny summer’s day. He’d expected all his fears from last night to seem silly in the morning, but he was shaky as he took a quick shower, choked down some breakfast, and ran out the door, down the street.

            Anna and Cecilia were drawing with sidewalk chalk when he went up to them.

            “Mark!” they both cried with delight.

            “Hi, girls. Er, are your parents at home?” He looked around at the mostly deserted street as he spoke. There was one of his neighbors, mowing their lawn, and another farther down the neighborhood was trimming their hedges.

            “Daddy’s at work,” said Anna, coloring in a flower idly. “And Mom’s in the backyard, gardening.”

            “Mark,” said Cecilia, sitting up now and looking at him curiously, “what did the lady say to you last night?”

            “Well,” he said unwillingly, looking around the street again and lowering his voice so they had to bend closer to hear him. “That’s kind of why I’m here. The lady asked me to come back—she needs a favor from me. I don’t know what yet.”

             “Ooh, is it a secret?” said Cecilia eagerly.

            “Um…it would probably be best if you didn’t mention it to your parents, or to anyone. Can I trust you? It’ll be just between the three of us—just our secret?”

            “Oh, yes, we promise,” said Anna solemnly.

            “Pinky swear,” said Cecilia seriously. “I’ll never ever tell anyone.”

            It was clear from their faces that they meant it.

            “If Mom catches you inside, we’ll tell her that you left something here last night,” said Anna.”The door’s not locked, you can go in. Oh, and by the way, the attic door is at the end of the third floor hallway.”

            “Um…thanks, Anna,” he said, a little surprised by the amount of deception going through the girls’ minds—after all, Anna was ten and Cecilia was only seven.

            Mark felt very self-conscious indeed as he walked into the entry hall.  He was exceptionally worried about getting caught roaming about someone else’s house, (though he knew Mrs. Connelly wouldn’t call the cops on him) because he was terrible at giving explanations. Up the wide, grand staircase…perhaps they had carried Estella’s limp body down these stairs when they’d discovered her…past the second floor…this was where she had once lived, once walked, and had eventually killed herself…up the third floor corridor…through the hallway…

            He came, finally, to an old wooden door. The attic—he was here at last. Was he insane for going through with this? Turning the old brass handle and opening the door on its rusty hinges, he cautiously peeked inside. The rickety stairs were very steep and coated with dust.

             Something about the dust hanging in the air, floating and dancing in the light, and the untouched feeling in the room made Mark want to hold his breath. Every floorboard in this attic squealed at the slightest pressure, the wood swathed in a thick layer of dust. Against one wall, a moth-eaten mannequin stood like a lone sentinel in a sea of unwanted remnants: a lopsided settee that was missing one leg; a sofa with silk cushions, all frayed to shreds; an archaic trunk with a rusted padlock; a pile of cardboard boxes, water-stained; and a faded painting resting in a tarnished brass frame. He took another shaky step, wincing at the floorboard’s protest—but something caught the corner of his eye.

            The movement, he realized, came from a mirror—a huge, almost floor-to-ceiling mirror with an ornately carved frame, veiled with dust so that his own reflection was hazy. Shivering, he walked on.

            His eyes swept the room, glancing nervously into every corner and alcove, looking for her—part of him wishing he would be unsuccessful. But he had to make sure.

            “Hello?” he whispered hesitantly. “Anyone in here?”

            The smallest sound, like a tiny gasp, came from near the grimy rose window.

            “Mark, is that you?” breathed the hair-raising voice, which seemed to echo all around him.

            He jumped, searching the attic again with his eyes. “Where are you?”

            “I’m here by the window—the light makes me disappear.”

            He thought he heard a light swishing sound, like a breeze, suddenly she appeared in a dark corner, and he got his first good look at the girl—now he was somewhat less paralyzed with fear than last time.

            Estella was beautiful—not the transient, relative kind of good looks that come and go with fads, that depend on the fashions and the time era; but the enduring, unforgettable beauty that transcends all time. She was graceful even when still, musical even when silent, compelling even when she didn’t try to be. Her dark, satiny hair somehow reminded Mark of the black smoothness of a grand piano—something about the contrast of the ebony tresses with the perfect ivory of her skin. Her eyes—dark as well, piercing and spellbinding at once—seemed to burn with a single glance.

            She looked somewhat like an actress from a black and white film; timeless in splendor but faded.

            Something about her—perhaps her intense eyes, holding him with a hypnotic force; perhaps the simple sadness about such a young beauty having her life ended—stunned him, and something stuck in his throat.

            There was something odd about her, too. Every time he looked directly at her, she was clearly just a girl, albeit a transparent one—but when he glanced at her from the corner of his eyes, he could have sworn she changed. Her lacy dress seemed tattered, her pale cheeks sunken, her white hands skeletal… when he wasn’t looking closely, it was as if she became a corpse.

            Shivering, he pushed those thoughts out of his mind.

            She smiled slightly, and it was alluring, whether she intended it that way or not. “Thank you so much for coming back—I’ll be honest, I was worried.” Her voice sounded like a high breeze.

            He cleared his throat. “What exactly is it that you need help for?”

            Estella deliberated. “How much do you know about me—about this house, I mean? People talk about it, I’m sure. They say it’s haunted, don’t they?”

            “Well, yeah, but…that can’t possibly bother you, can it? They were apparently right.”

            Estella laughed a little—the sound fascinating and frightening at the same time. “No, of course not…I merely wondered if there were stories going around about my death, that’s all.”

            Mark took a deep breath. “I-I looked you up in the newspapers at the library.”

            Estella’s face suddenly became dangerous, her eyes reduced to slits. “Oh? And what did they say?” Her soft voice had become dark.

            His throat closed up, and he found it very difficult to say, “That you committed suicide about a century ago.”

            Her flashing eyes were immediately a fury, her chest rising heavily in her rage. “Is that what they think?” she seethed, her fiery voice echoing off the attic walls terribly.

            Mark backed up, as far as he could go, until he hit the wall.

            As suddenly as it had come, the anger died in her eyes, the fire dimmed. “I’m frightening you,” she said, her face and voice shocked. She blinked a few times, and her eyes became contrite. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize people could find me frightening so easily…it’s just like the other night, with the two little girls…I didn’t mean to scare them, either.” She took a fluid yet cautious step towards him, her expression still apologetic. “I’m not angry at you, Mark, don’t you see? I’m angry at them for misremembering me, that’s all.”

            Mark’s mouth was very dry as he asked hesitantly, “So you didn’t kill yourself, then?”

            She sighed wearily. “No, I did not. No one else knows this, much as I tried to tell them. It was not suicide, it was murder.”

            He gulped as her eyes became strangely hollow at these words. “Murder?” he repeated.

            Estella nodded once.

            “What—what happened?”

            When she looked at him again, he was startled to see her eyes shining with pearly tears. “I was at a party. Oh, I’ll never forget that party—it was at my best friend’s house, in her ballroom; all of my friends were there. Mrs. Lake, my housekeeper, made me a dress, just for the occasion,” she said, smoothing the skirt of the one she was wearing. Her wind-like voice was now full of wistfulness. “That is the last good memory I have, you see, so it stays with me easier than anything else…”


Chapter 6


            She took another deep breath as they waited for the door to open. Time for a real masquerade, she thought to herself wryly. Philip’s arm around hers had grown uncomfortably restricting.

            The door swung open, and the grey-haired butler welcomed them, “Good evening; do come inside.” He ushered them in graciously.

            The party was already alive with guests—she had come, as always, fashionably late. One lady with a glass of champagne stood halfway in the next door, blocking Estella’s view, but she could hear the music and laughter wafting in from the ballroom. Philip walked her in wordlessly.

            Colors were everywhere: a bright blue dress ruffled in the middle of the dance floor, fanning out like a butterfly’s wings; precise black and white of the orchestra lined up neatly like dominoes; the yellow taffeta gown lit up a dark corner. The wide, circular room had chairs and a pack of standing chatterers against one side, the strings orchestra on the other, and a huge clearing of the dance floor for waltzing couples. The entire room was bathed in gilded candlelight.

            “Estella, lovely to see you!” A girl had glided out of the pack to meet her, her intricate silver dress swishing around her.

            “Cora, what a beautiful dress!” Estella gushed, embracing her friend, glad to be free for once from Philip’s restraining grip.

            “Thank you,” Cora said primly, tucking one blonde lock back into place in the knot on her head. “Is that a new dress, too? It’s absolutely stunning.”

            So began the customary feminine exchange of information: first the remarks about each other’s appearance, then a compliment from the guest about how grand the party is, then the speculations about whom they will see as the evening progresses, and the formula goes on.

            Not long into the formulaic conversation, they were joined by a few other fluttering, twittering girls, Philip remaining a silent presence at Estella’s side.

            She noticed Grace, a pretty redhead with a simple gold dress, looking down as the others spoke. When Grace had complimented everyone else, it had come out of her mouth almost painfully, eyes watering, and Estella thought she knew the reason: Grace’s family was not rich; they were part of the lower middle-class that attempted to keep up with the upper middle-class. She must have felt plain amongst all the grandeur, uncomfortably so, and Estella felt a twinge of pity for her.

            “Grace, your hair is absolutely beautiful,” she murmured to her in an earnest undertone. “It looks like it must have taken hours.”

            Grace looked up at her in surprise, blinking a few times and going red. “Thank you,” she stammered. “It wasn’t that difficult.”

            Estella smiled. “Still, I’ve always wanted to be able to put my hair up like that—it never stays; it always falls out! You’re lucky your hair isn’t such a mess when left to its own devices.”

            Grace giggled with her, seeming grateful for the affirmation.

            Of course, all the girls wanted to hear about the engagement. Estella cringed at the questions and the congratulations from them, forcing another fake smile into place and holding it there with painful difficulty.

            When the talk of the engagement was over, and other gossip emerged, Estella felt strangely relieved at the triviality and seized the chance. She normally would not have been so interested in who was walking Miss So-and-So to church every Sunday for the past month, or who was calling on Miss What’s-her-name, but it thankfully got her mind off the deeper, personal topics which she was so keen to avoid. Eventually, she was even able to laugh and dance and have a good time herself, as long as she didn’t think too hard about the arm linked through hers.

            Even if she felt that her typical aura had dimmed, others would have disagreed. Some girls watched her from far away with jealous, malicious eyes; some men had to try their hardest to keep their eyes away from her. She stood out clearly in the crowd—her dark, sleek curls catching the candlelight in curious gold reflections, her pearly white skin glowing, her petal-pink dress showing off her curves, her carrying, contagious laughter…

            Sometime into the evening, Estella sat down to drink some punch and noticed Grace in a corner, all by herself.

            “Philip, would you do me a favor?” she asked him.

            He looked at her, surprised—she hadn’t spoken directly to him very much all evening. “Certainly,” he said. “What do you want?”

            “See that girl over there? That’s my friend, Grace. Would you please dance with her a few songs? She hasn’t got a partner.”

            When Philip reached Grace and extended a hand to her, she looked up in wonder that a gentleman was asking her to dance, and the smile blossoming across her face was reward enough for Estella.

            By the time one o’clock came around, she was actually having a grand time. The music was lighthearted, the party was lively, and Philip was not a bad dancer at all. She was almost disappointed when the clock struck one thirty, and the guests began to slowly disperse.

            The walk home was rather quiet, except for the crickets.

            “I had a lovely time; I hope you did,” he said, once they had reached her porch steps.

            “It was wonderful, Philip,” she said, actually with some enthusiasm. “Thank you for taking me.”

            He smiled, seeming relieved at her response. “Good-night, Estella.”

            He leaned in to kiss her lightly.

            And she turned away so he kissed her cheek.

            There was an uncomfortable pause, as Estella cleared her throat quietly. Philip nodded to himself, as if something had been confirmed, and his expression was resigned.

            “Good-night, Philip,” she said, not meeting his eyes. She gave a small, artificial smile, he kissed her hand, and they parted.


            She shut the door carefully so it wouldn’t make too much noise. The hall was dark, and she could barely see her way to the stairs. She found herself stumbling on her way up; it was almost two in the morning, and she was exhausted. The house was completely silent and sleeping.

            Some of the thoughts she’d repressed all evening began to creep back into her mind. Her wedding was in two weeks, and she didn’t want it to come any closer.

            She’d never been in love before. She didn’t know what it felt like. She’d watched her friends go courting many times, seen several get married, all of them fluttery and melting with emotion every time they caught sight of their lover. But…what if…

            What if they felt, deep down, no differently than she did about Philip? What if that’s all love really was—just the vaguest inclination, the indifference, perhaps some mild affection? What if the feelings she’d longed to feel for another since she was a child didn’t really happen the way she thought? Perhaps they all felt the same blandness as she did, and she simply was not as good at acting like it was stronger.

            What if the love she’d always wanted didn’t really exist? What if no one ever felt like that at all? What if friendship—or cordiality—was really all she could hope for in a marriage?

            What if the passion, the fireworks, the excitement was really just a fraud?

            Feeling utterly disillusioned, she trudged up the stairs, taking off her shoes as she went.

  Tiptoeing across the hall to her bedroom, she felt her way to the far wall, near her window. She groped for the gas lamp.

            She finally found the switch, and she began to turn it on.

            The light was barely on when something touched her in the dark.

            Someone grabbed her from behind and slipped something around her neck, so fast she had no idea how it happened.

            Her eyes popped open wide, and she tried to scream.

            What?! What are you doing? Get off me!

            She had no voice. She couldn’t breathe.

            It happened so fast, she didn’t have time to fight back.

            The noose cut into her neck painfully, blocking off her air and closing up her throat. It hurt more now—she somehow had time to register that she was in the air, dangling from the rope like a marionette.

            It felt like a thousand weights were pressing on her throat.

            Her silent scream was wordless—there were no words for this. Her terror was unimaginable.

            She was so light that her unexpected execution was not as quick as it might have been. She was spinning on the rope, the burn in her throat cutting into her flesh, choking her—

            And then she saw him. She saw his face, the one who was doing this to her. She could only think one thing in her paralyzed shock.

            Why?! Why are you doing this to me? What have I done?

            What’s the matter with you?

            Her murderer’s sneer turned into a grin at the shock on her face, as she tried vainly to gasp for air, her face turning blue. Her throat closed up completely, and she couldn’t inhale or exhale—she was suffocating, choking to death…

            She was so paralyzed, so terrified, that even her frantic motions—clawing at the rope at her neck, kicking her feet—were feeble and to no effect.

            And then he pulled something out of his pocket. A letter. She would have thought she was beyond noticing anything, but this somehow seemed significant. He set it on the bedside table as he watched, grinning, as she felt her consciousness draining.

            It hurt so badly, she simply wanted it to end.

            Please, please, let this stop…

            The room was getting darker.

            I’m slipping away! I’m falling……What’s happening to me…?

            The feeling of dying was terrifying. One minute, lungs ached from wanting air, and pain saturated every portion of her body. The next, she felt numbness, a deadening weight settling in her limbs, and she was too tired to fight any longer.

             Once she began to lose the feeling in her body, once the darkness began to swallow her, and she could no longer cling to life, it was only the fading that frightened her. There were no murderers in the darkness here, but it was so unknown, so uncharted, she didn’t want to be plunged into it...

            Chapter 7


            Mark was very green. It was possibly the most horrible story he had ever heard, and the saddest. “So, who…who was it that killed you?” he asked hoarsely.

            Estella shook her head, seeming to remember Mark’s presence—she stopped tracing her neck absentmindedly and looked at him again. 
“I…It won’t make sense unless you see the evidence for yourself. I don’t think I could adequately explain it myself. You’ll have to wait until you can see the proof.”
            “What happened to your fiancé, Phillip?”

            To his surprise, she smiled. “He felt awful, of course, but it was good for him, in the end. Even if I never loved him like that, I do have some friendly affection for him. Three of his seven children are still alive, and I lost count of his grandchildren.”

            Although Mark was a little shaky from the tension of her story, he smiled a little. At least there was a happy ending for one character in this tale.

            “He was always kind to me, when I was alive,” she continued. “Especially considering he could tell I didn’t want to marry him. I do think he may have fancied me, though. I felt guilty about that.” She smiled again. “But at least he got to marry someone who loved him back.” 
“And the rest of the family—what happened to them?”

            Estella, impossibly, seemed to pale even further. She looked at her hands as she spoke. “My father believed my death to be his fault,” she said in a shaky voice. “He blamed himself because there was a letter on my bedside table saying I killed myself so I wouldn’t have to get married…and it said he surely wouldn’t miss me if he didn’t care enough to make me happy when I was alive…I would never have said any of those things, not a single one! But that was how the murderer got away with his crime…” She trailed off angrily, but the anguish crept back into her expression. “My father grew very ill, sickened by grief, and he died a year after I did.”

            Mark didn’t know what to say, but he was stunned.

            “And so, in the end, it was I that was responsible for his death (however inadvertently), not the other way around,” she said bitterly. “After my father died, Marta sold the house—she said it was too big for her, all alone, and it made her feel lonely. But sometimes I thought that perhaps…it was like the family knew I was still there, somehow,” she whispered. Her face was far away, focused on haunting memories from a century ago. “No one could see me or hear me, no matter how much I tried to speak to them, no matter how hard I tried to get their attention…” Her voice was agonized, frustrated. “It was like in those dreams, where you try to scream with all your lungpower, and yet you make not a sound, and no one pays you any mind…”

            She broke off with a shudder. “But I think sometimes they may have felt my presence, especially when one of them came across my bedroom…” She still had a pensive look on her face as she recollected. “Little Peter went off one day to fight in the Great War…and he never came back. Adam travelled all over New England, never truly settling down anyplace for long. And Marta died of old age, alone and unhappy.”

            Something had just occurred to Mark. “Wouldn’t your…um…killer already be dead, though? I mean, I would want justice too, if I was you. But proving he did it wouldn’t change anything. It’s been one hundred years. He’ll be dead, too, by now, right?”

            “Yes, he’s dead, I’m sure,” said Estella through clenched teeth. “But I still want to set the record straight. I don’t want to be remembered wrongly. And—well—there are others who would benefit as well.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I’ll explain that part later.”

            Mark was mystified by this remark, but she didn’t look willing to explain. “So what now?” he asked.

            “Now…when it gets dark I can show you something.”

            “When it gets dark?” Mark gulped. “Can’t we just do it now?”

            She rolled her eyes at him with contempt. “No we cannot. For one thing, how am I supposed to lead you if you can’t even see me? And for another thing, I don’t want us to get caught.”

            “Caught?” he repeated in alarm.

            She laughed disdainfully. “There’s no need to look so terrified. Don’t you trust me at all?”

            He cleared his throat. “Not exactly, no.”

            Her voice was patronizing when she assured him, “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything illegal; don’t worry.”

            There were footsteps a few floors below him, and he winced.

            “Alright, then, I’ll come back when it’s dark—but I don’t live here; I was babysitting when we met last night.”

            “Oh…well then, can I come home with you so you don’t have to keep coming back and forth?”

            Her request was met with silence, and she laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid to have me in your house?” she mocked, one eyebrow raised.

            Scowling, he said, “No, I’m just not sure how to explain you to my mother.”

            She rolled her eyes again, smirking. “Alright, fine. I’ll see you later, then.”

             Once he was out of the attic, and out of Estella’s sight, Mark came back to reality and realized he was still in the Connelly’s house. He snuck out the front door, his heart beating rapidly in his paranoia, and he was not caught. He couldn’t help looking back behind him as he crossed the street, having the uncanny feeling that he was being watched.

            Back in his room, he tried to watch a fly buzzing around his ceiling as he sprawled across his bed. The ghost story he had heard today sounded much more like a fairy tale in here—without the happy ending, of course—and he had much more difficulty accepting it at the moment than he had in the creepy old attic. 


            Estella opened her eyes. It was like waking up, this sudden awareness. Her room was still dark, but she was still safe and sound in her own bedroom. Laughing in relief, she realized it had all been a dream—terrifying at the time, but now it seemed silly.

            She sat up. She felt very…strange. It was a floating sort of feeling, like she was detached from her body. Perhaps she hadn’t slept long enough; the darkness told her it was not yet dawn, but she felt wide awake.

            She slid out of bed and came face to face with—herself!

            It was no reflection in a mirror. It was the real Estella: her dark curls somewhat tangled, mouth slightly open in shock, eyes staring blankly.

            Her feet hovering a few feet off the ground.

            The noose still around her neck, connected to her curtain rod.

            She screamed.

            What is that thing? she thought. That can’t be me, I’m right here!

            She could feel herself start to hyperventilate.

            What’s going on? What’s happening to me?

            She cast a wild glance to the mirror propped up on her vanity—and screamed again.

            She could barely see herself—just a faint, transparent image, through which the opposite wall could be seen.

            I’m dead! I’m dead! I must be—what else is there?

            She sucked in shallow breaths, too fast. Her head spun as she tried to think.

            That’s my body there, she thought. But then what am I? An angel? But this isn’t heaven—or hell—I’m still in my room. Why am I still here?

            She tasted panic in the back of her throat.

            Why am I not in heaven? What even happened last night?

            She struggled to remember exactly how it happened…it had all been a terrifying blur…she remembered the suddenness, the panic, the pain throughout her body, but how exactly…

            Then she remembered. Adam. Her stepbrother. He had been there—she remembered his face, smirking as he watched her suffocate, relishing in her death.

            Her death?!

            How could this have happened? She had been having fun mere hours before, thinking about her future only minutes before it happened, and now…now she had no future. She had been healthy and energetic and young mere moments before; how could this happen?

            She realized she had had her eyes locked in the staring gaze of her own dead body for five minutes.

            Now she was aware of one other feeling—the cold, the relentless, unending cold like a cruel wind whipping around her constantly.

            She had to turn away from the window and hide her view from the body; she couldn’t stand to look at it any longer. But the only sound to break the silence was the creaking of the spinning rope.

            What now? she thought. What more can I do? Just sit here and wait for someone to find me?

            Then it dawned on her—what would become of her family, her friends? If she was terrified at the sight of her own corpse, surely they would be all the more horrified.

            The creaking sound was so distracting that she made the mistake of looking back to the window, where she was still revolving like a grotesque puppet on a tangled string. If she could have retched, she would have.

            She sat there for hours, watching the body spin on the rope, feeling sicker and sicker. Her thoughts were just as endlessly tangled, hopelessly circular.

            Her dread increased as the first hint of dawn began to creep over the horizon. It was July sixteenth, 1906.


            “Estella?” came a voice on the other side of the door.

            Her throat clenched in panic. The awful moment of discovery had come.

            “Estella? Honey, it’s time to wake up.”

            Still, Mrs. Lake received no answer.

            “Dear, I know you were up late last night, but it’s almost nine o’clock! Time to get up, sweetheart.”

            Finally, the old woman opened the door. First, her eyes flickered to the bed, where Estella had not slept last night. Then her gaze snapped to the sight in front of the window.

            Estella covered her ears, but it didn’t matter. Her housekeeper’s scream was still more than audible—and it rent straight through Estella like a knife.


            It felt like hours that she stood there, watching. She watched the whole house come running at Mrs. Lake’s screams. She watched her father blanch at the marionette in its appalling position on the ghastly stage. She watched him call the doctor, the police, everyone he could reach in a frantic kind of haze. She watched the doctors lower the body down carefully, confirming that the girl was indeed dead, someone finding the time to close her eyes. She watched them bear her, on a stretcher, down the stairs, a white blanket over her—one of her white hands hanging limply off it.

            She couldn’t stop watching, though it made her feel sick. She felt frozen, like the overpowering cold had made her numb. All she could do was watch.
Chapter 8


            Mark kicked off his shoes, dimly realizing that he had been staring at the ceiling for about a half hour. His glasses were slightly askew. He was never going to concentrate on his homework.

            This is so ludicrous! He thought. No one would ever believe me if I told them I’d just had a conversation with a ghost. And my only other witnesses are two little kids. Ugh. I must be going crazy or something…

            But that story was so sad…the poor girl. She was so young—so beautiful. How terribly unfair; she had so much ahead of her.

            He shook his head. It simply couldn’t be true. There was no such thing as ghosts. His head was spinning; he must be seeing things…

            Yet the story had coincided so well with the newspapers. There were so many little details that matched up with the physical evidence, and that was one thing Mark could not have fabricated in his mind.

            Well, did he believe it? Could it be true?

            With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he realized it didn’t matter—he didn’t care. Just as he had swallowed his pride this morning and gone over to the house, he would revisit her again. No matter how impossible the situation was, he felt sorry for her. She was so afraid, so lonely—wasn’t it his duty as a gentleman to help her?

            With a sudden chuckle, he realized how old-fashioned that sounded.


            By evening, he had bullied his brain into concentrating on schoolwork. The only sound in his room was the quiet scratch of his mechanical pencil against graph paper, writing out endless equations for parabolas. The bland, predictable mathematics were comforting.


            Mark jumped, a huge graphite gash appearing on his paper.

            Estella snickered. She was sitting on his windowsill, clutching her sides as she laughed, apparently unable to catch her breath. “You should have seen…your face!” she said between giggles.

            Mark folded his arms across his chest, scowling. “What was that for, anyway?”

            She had calmed down a bit, but she was wiping tears of mirth away. “Am I honestly that scary? Or are you just easily frightened?”

            “Maybe I’m just not used to phantoms popping up in my bedroom,” he fumed. “Anyways, how did you know which house was mine?”

            “I followed you,” she shrugged easily. “If it’s bright sunlight, I can disappear almost completely. It wasn’t hard to hide from your view.”

            “What did you follow me for?”

            Her dark eyes swept the room casually. “I was bored.”

            “Well I don’t think I approve of your means of entertaining yourself,” he muttered, scrubbing out the black line with his eraser.

            “It’s not my fault you’re a coward,” she said lightly.

            He threw a dark look in her direction. So much for pitying her, he thought.

            She smirked. He hadn’t noticed it earlier this morning—or perhaps it hadn’t been there this morning—or the night before, but her proud smile had a touch of scorn written in it. Her head was held high, a trace of condescension lifting her chin. And when she casually tossed her curls, it was done contemptuously, he could tell.

            Had he simply been so transfixed before that he hadn’t noticed it, or had she only just decided he was inferior?

            “So what was so important that you didn’t even notice me sitting there for about five minutes?” Yes, there was definitely contempt tracing her features.

            He gritted his teeth together in annoyance. “Finding the slope of parabolas, actually,” he said coolly, knowing she probably hadn’t the faintest idea what they were.

            “Mm,” she said sarcastically, “that sounds fascinating. I can’t believe I interrupted something so exciting.”

            He rolled his eyes. He knew she didn’t want to admit she didn’t understand.

            “Do you need something, Estella, or did you just decide to haunt me for your own amusement?”

            “I told you, I was bored,” she said, looking at her nails. “You would be too, if you’d been sitting around for a hundred years, doing nothing.”

            He sat back down at his desk, brushing eraser dust off his paper. “Well, maybe you need to find a hobby or something, if your only enjoyment comes from startling people.”

            “Please—can I stay here until evening? I won’t cause any trouble; I’ll just be sitting here.”

            He looked up, startled at her sudden mood swing. She was biting her lip, looking at him anxiously.

            “Sure…okay,” he shrugged. “But hide if my mom comes up, will you?”

            “Fair enough,” she said, her mood light once more.

            Trying not to glance at her from the corner of his eye, Mark turned back to his homework. It was harder, knowing she was watching him, and he found his lines had become wavering, trembling marks of graphite.

            Stop being ridiculous, he told himself. There’s no need to be nervous just because she’s in the room.

            Five minutes later, he gave in for a moment and glanced at her. She was still sitting on the windowsill, her knees drawn up to her chest. She was looking at him too—smirking at the moment.

            “What, am I distracting you?” she teased.

            He let out a short breath through his nose, trying not to be irritated. “No,” he said shortly, turning back to his paper.


            It went on like that for a few hours. Mark finished one math assignment, only to remember he still had chemistry homework—lugging the heavy book out from under his bed grudgingly, trying to hide the mess under there from his “guest”. For the most part, there was silence, but occasionally Estella would ask him a question.

            “Mark,” she said suddenly, “what are those out on the street?”

            She was looking out the window. He got up and looked to where she was pointing.

            “I thought they had automobiles in 1906,” he said, surprised.

            Her eyes popped wide for a moment—Mark almost laughed.

            Those are automobiles?” she gasped. She was frowning at the metal vehicles traveling considerably faster and sleeker than she was used to.

            “Yes they are,” he said. He’d never actually been amazed at the sight of his mom’s station wagon in the driveway, or the minivan parked across the street. “They’re more commonly known as ‘cars’ nowadays, though.”

            She shook her head slowly. “And most people in my time thought that horseless carriages were silly and would never catch on…”

            “Well, they’re still around. In fact, they’re the main method of transportation, basically.”

            He glanced at her momentarily and saw that the disdain had vanished from her face, and she was simply gazing curiously out the window.

            But she blinked, and it was back in place as she looked at him


            “So…what are we doing here?” Mark whispered. The night was so dark, it seemed a solid presence pressing around them, hiding them—except Estella, the pale specter at his side, was more discernible in the dark than she was in the light. She glowed faintly, her outline clearer than he had yet seen. The sound of the crickets only seemed to intensify the silence apart from his footsteps.

            “We’ve got to find something here, and I can’t dig it up myself,” she whispered back, looking around the park as if searching.

            Mark shivered with the breeze. It must be close to one in the morning, but he couldn’t help but glance around with guilt—he couldn’t shake off the feeling that they would be caught.

            The playground was deserted, of course: the jungle gym glinted silver in the meager moonlight, the monkey bars dappled with starlight. The merry-go-round creaked infinitesimally clockwise, the breeze turning it slowly; the swings rocked back and forth slowly, too, their rusted chains clinking like a ghost’s chains.

            “This way—it’s over here,” said Estella, breaking him out of his trance. She glided over to a space under one of the plastic slides and pointed to the ground. “It’s right under here, a few feet under.”

            “So that’s why we brought shovels,” he muttered. “Are you sure it’s right here?”

            She nodded. “I’m positive.”

            And so Mark plowed the shovel into the woodchips and began to dig. Under the woodchips, he started to uncover soil, and this went on for several feet.

            It hadn’t occurred to him to ask Estella how far down this buried “treasure” was, but when his arms had begun to ache, his muscles cramped, and his face grew sweaty, he began to wonder if it was six feet under.

            As if she’s heard his thought, she whispered, “Just a little bit further—you’re almost there.”

            A few more shovelfuls of earth, and he heard a loud thump.

            “Is this it?”


            He cleared the dirt away and discovered an antique wooden trunk.

            “It’s not locked,” she murmured.

            Hesitantly, he freed the hinges from the dirt caked onto it and lifted the latch, but did not open it.

            “Say, er…you never did say was in here. It’s not, like, a body all cut up or something?”

            “Nothing quite that gruesome,” she said in an odd voice, “at least, not in that way.”

            Mark cringed as the opening trunk made a strident squeak against the silent night.

            “Oh—it’s just a bunch of old papers,” he sighed in relief. “What’s this one—a letter?”

            “Read it,” she commanded, eyes suddenly fierce and voice suddenly steely. “Read the top letter to yourself.”

            Mark picked out the crinkly, yellowed sheet of stationary and tried to decipher the scrawled cursive.

            To whoever might find this,

            I write my confession—my epitaph—here, hidden, secret, so that one day it shall be discovered long after I am gone and beyond the reaches of the law. It was I who executed Estella Rosalind Wells two weeks before she was married, yet no one but I doubts that she killed herself.

            Why did I do it? She was a saintly, sugary, sickly sweet young girl and everyone fawned over her. Everything was also Estella this and Estella that, everyone babbling incessantly about darling Estella—how utterly perfect she was.

            Yet I was the only one who saw her for what she was—a traitor, a usurper. She was supposed to be my sister—ha! As if she could take the place of my sister. It was not only a lie but a mockery to the word to call her “sister”. I had a sister. Years before my mother married Mr. Wells, I had a father too, and my lovely sister Margaret—sixteen years old then, the dearest person I have ever met, the only person I have ever cared greatly for—and they died in an outbreak of scarlet fever. My younger brother, Peter, was also struck, but it did not kill him, though he was weakened much of his life. That was when I knew: the world does not love anyone. The world is a cruel and sick place that exists only to torment the weak who allow themselves to love.

            And then she came along, the saintly little girl, and my mother told me I must call her my sister. I hated her from the moment I saw her, though I was only twelve years old, and she only nine. I felt bile rise up in my throat at the mere sight of her, every day. Luckily, she left for finishing school at thirteen, went abroad, and only returned home briefly in the summertime and Christmas. I did not have to endure much of her for many years, until she turned eighteen. That was the year she came home to stay—and I knew something had to be done.

            Then her precious engagement occurred, and people prattled about her even more. As if everyone’s behavior towards her before had not been sickening enough—now people gave her twice the amount of attention. Something had to be done about her crime. And I, the only witness to it, had to be the one to convict her.

            I took care of her at last, the night of July sixteenth, only two weeks before she was to be married. Her fiancé couldn’t have cared much for her, for he married her friend Grace but a year after Estella’s death. Mr. Wells, however, was distraught, as was our housekeeper, who had often acted as her surrogate mother. The whole town was in shock and anguish for some time, and it took months for the uproar to subside.

            I, on the other hand, was immensely satisfied. All of them—all the tiny people in the pathetic little town—were now getting an education in what the world is really like. Now they knew my pain. Now they felt the burn of loss and agony that comes from loving another. Estella made the mistake of loving many, many people, and now she reaped her reward, as I had. It was justice.

            I left town surreptitiously a few weeks later. No one cared; they all believed when I said I had to leave the place where my “sister” had died. Ha! As if! I merely meant to avoid suspicion and start over with a clean slate, now that justice had been carried out.

            But several years later, when I arrived in another town, I met a girl everyone called Samantha Jones—yet I knew it was not truly. She had dark hair and eyes, same as my stepsister’s; she, too, was beloved through the town and a syrupy saint. That was when I knew—Estella was following me, tormenting me through supernatural means, and it would be difficult to escape. She was angry.

            I tried to get rid of the problem again—hanging her again, hoping that the second time I would succeed—but in the next town I found another! It seemed that no matter where I went, no matter how far I traveled, no matter how many times I tried to rid myself of her, Estella was following me wherever I went. Every girl seemed to secretly be Estella, and now I was beyond frustrated, beyond desperate. There was no way to rid myself of her.

            This, of course, is the only way. Tonight I shall say good-bye to the world—this cruel world of pain and suffering, this world that exists only to torment—and I shall finally be free of her. A few drops of arsenic in my wine tonight; I shall hardly feel a thing. It shall be far more peaceful and pleasant than life has been.

            If anyone should find this, I shall already be free. But now you know the truth, and what has truly happened to Estella, and to me.

            Adam Wainwright

            Mark looked up from the paper, thoroughly shaken and a little green. “Adam…you mean…your stepbrother killed you? That letter was…” He swallowed, trying to compose himself. “That was seriously sick.”

            Estella took a deep breath. “Yes it was.” Her voice was a little ragged. “You know…I almost feel a little sorry for him.”

            “You weren’t really haunting him through other people, were you?”

            “No, of course not! As if I had the power to do something like that anyways. No, after I died, he met a girl who looked something like me, and—forgive me for my assumption, but I do believe he was a little mad. After he killed her, every girl started to look like me to him… No, it was his own mind that was tormenting him, not me.”

            Mark shuddered. “I’m so sorry. That’s awful.”

            Estella smiled wryly. “Are you alright? You look like you’re going to throw up any minute. You’re about as white as me.”

            Mark laughed weakly. “No, I’m okay. But it’s no wonder you almost went crazy that whole long century…not exactly good memories to stay with you…”

            Estella laughed too, the sound uncharacteristically shaky.

            He sifted through the other papers in the trunk. There were newspaper clippings, yellowed and crunchy with age, old photographs and other letters.

            “How many were there?” he muttered, sorting through the different photos. There seemed to be so many girls pictured; surely they weren’t all different people? There seemed to be too many.

            “Ten girls,” she whispered.

            He blanched. “Ten? But that’s… that’s like a massacre! How did he not get caught? That’s just…just…”

            “Awful, I know,” she said, her eyes hard.

            “Well, it’s eleven including you, right?”

            She nodded, looking down.

            “It’s my fault,” she said in a low voice.


            “None of the others would have died if I had tried a little harder,” she breathed. Her voice sounded like such a light breeze, it was barely audible. “I tried to warn the others, but it didn’t work. They couldn’t see me or hear me—though sometimes I think a few of them might have guessed I was there. I appeared to them in dreams, trying to warn them, but they only woke up screaming every time.”

            Mark frowned. “You mean…you tried to warn them ahead of time, couldn’t, and now you think it’s your fault they died?”

            She looked up at him, eyes sharp. “Have you ever been the first of eleven serial killings?” she snapped. “Next time that happens to you, you can tell me there’s no reason to feel guilty.”

            Mark put his hands in his pockets, suddenly very cold. “Fine, fine,” he said. “What now? We take this thing to the police in the morning?”

            She pressed her lips into a thin line. “I suppose.”

            Looking down into the trunk, she murmured, “Take that key with you.”

            It was a rusty old skeleton key.


            “Time to use that key,” Estella announced.

            “What, the one from Adam’s trunk?” Mark took it out of his pocket, the rusted skeleton key. “What does it belong to?”

            Estella drifted to a corner of the attic and searched through the pile of trunks. Many of them looked very old, even, perhaps, untouched since Estella’s time. At least an inch of dust lay thickly on top.

            “This one,” she whispered, pointing to a wooden trunk underneath all the others.

            “Do these belong to the Connellys?” he asked, confused.

            She shook her head. “This one was left behind by my family. They couldn’t bear to take it with them. Adam took the key and locked it away in his…epitaph, however theatrical that was.”

            The key in Mark’s hands suddenly felt ten times heavier. This chest had not been disturbed for one hundred years, and now he was about to open it.

            Ridiculously, his hands shook as he inserted the key and turned it. The hinges squeaked just as heavily and stridently as the last trunk he had unlocked—though this one was not encrusted with dirt.

            He let out a small, barely audible gasp as he reached out to touch its contents. Somehow, seeing it there was ten times sadder than simply hearing about it. Estella had been a real, living girl, and here was physical proof.

            “That was going to be my wedding dress,” Estella whispered, a dead look on her face. He pretended not to notice that her eyes were swimming.

            He ran his hand along the faded white satin and lace. “This was yours?” He felt cold all over, his hands like ice, and his face had drained of color.

            She nodded. “It’s all my things—my family locked it away. They couldn’t bear to look at it any longer…”

            Underneath the wedding dress—he lifted it carefully, as if it would tear at the slightest pressure—was a stack of old photographs, faded with age and being locked away in the dark.

            “Is this you?” he asked, frowning. It looked remarkably like her, yet not quite right—her nose was pointier, her face a little too old to be Estella.

            “That’s my mother,” said Estella in a faraway voice. “I never met her, but I’m supposed to look a great deal like her. My father was deeply in love with her…very distraught over her death… I suppose that’s why he took so long to remarry, even though his friends insisted that I needed a mother.”

            Under this picture was a family portrait. A man with a moustache and graying hair, slicked back and combed to impeccable straightness, sat in a wooden chair. A young girl—no older than six or seven—sat on his lap; she had precocious, round eyes—dark, familiar eyes—and very curly dark hair…

            “Is that…you?

            She nodded. “And my father, of course,” she added, pointing unnecessarily at the man. “That was taken before he married Marta—back when it was just he and I.”

            Under it was another photograph of Estella—but this one must have been taken closer to her death, because she looked almost the same as ever, albeit much clearer and healthier. She was sitting beside a young man with a stiff, high collar and painfully straight posture.

            “That’s Philip—we got that photograph for our engagement.”

            Though no one smiled in any of the pictures, Mark couldn’t help but notice how oddly uncomfortable Estella looked in the photo where she sat awkwardly next to Philip.

            When he glanced at her, he realized she was blinking rapidly as she studied the photos.

            “Are you okay?” he asked kindly.

            “I’m fine,” she snapped, folding her arms across her chest. “Why shouldn’t I be?”

            He raised his eyebrows in disbelief, but he had turned his head so she couldn’t see.

            Under the pictures was a collection of trinkets: a silver brush and hand mirror, a pair of solid gold earrings, a dusty china doll, a pair of high-heeled boots with countless buttons, and a strand of still-luminous pearls.

            “It’s just everything of mine they didn’t bring with them,” said Estella matter-of-factly. “Nothing too extraordinary, I suppose; I just wanted to see my old things…”

            There was a petal-pink dress of gossamer that looked rather familiar.

            “Oh, and that’s the dress I died in,” said Estella casually.

            “Uh…” Mark dropped it immediately, like it was stained. He’d just touched something she’d died in—he couldn’t deny his revulsion.

            Estella giggled, seeming to have recovered her humor.

            Mark placed everything gently back into the trunk. “Do you want to look at these some more?”

            She shook her head. “No…but thank you,” she said, smiling at him a little. “It was nice to think about some good memories for a change.”

            She had become serious, evidently, as her wandering eyes grew pensive. “That mirror was ours, too. I suppose it was too large for them to take to their next house,” she said quietly, pointing to the tarnished floor-to-ceiling mirror across the room.

            Mark shivered. Estella’s reflection was even hazier than his, but seeing himself in the dusty old mirror made him look ghostly, too.

            “Come on, I better go,” he muttered. “I don’t want to get caught in someone else’s house.”

            She nodded, her brooding eyes still fixed on the mirror.


            1906—Two Weeks before the Murder

            The three-way mirror repeated her image three times—three lovely, unhappy Estellas dressed in white—but they all looked hazy to her. The veil over her face clouded her vision. Glancing at the group behind her, she bit her lip.

            “Do you think it’s a bit too grand?” she asked anxiously.

            “It’s gorgeous!” squealed Cora, rushing forward to look more closely. “The veil is perfect!”

            “I love the train—so elegant,” another girl cooed.

            “Philip won’t be able to take his eyes off you!” Grace exclaimed.

            “This is going to be one spectacular wedding—the social highlight of the summer, at least!”

            Estella hoisted a painful smile on her face. “Thank you.”

            Marta entered the room, calling, “Time to fit the bridesmaids.”

            The twittering, flapping flock of birds flew from the room, leaving Estella gazing morosely at her own reflection. But another knock came on the door.

            “Can I come in?”

            “Come in, Father.”

            Mr. Wells smiled when he caught sight of her. He crossed the room and put his arm around her shoulders. “You look beautiful, dear.”

            She forced another smile. “Thank you, Father.”

            “See? What did I tell you? This wedding may not be so bad after all.”

            Perhaps she was being more convincing than she had thought.

            “Here—I brought you something,” her father said. He reached into his pocket and took out a small, flat, rectangular box. “Go on, open it.”

            With trembling fingers, she lifted the lid.

            “Father, you didn’t!” she gasped. “They’re not real, are they?”

            “Of course they are,” her father bristled. “That dress is old, so you had to have something new.”

            A glistening strand of precious pearls lay in the box, delicate and perfect.

            “Come on, try them on; I want to see how they look,” said her father, beckoning her over so he could lift her veil and clasp the necklace. She turned back to the mirror to examine the pearls gleaming against her throat.

            “They’re beautiful, Papa, but they look awfully expensive—“

            “And no expense is too great to spend on my daughter on her wedding day,” he interrupted, kissing her forehead. “It’s a very special day; it only happens once in your life.”

            She smiled tremulously. “Thank you,” she said again.

            He smiled under his bushy moustache. “You’re welcome, sweetheart.” Then he seemed to remember something. “I’ve got one more thing for you.” Pulling out another box, he said, “You’ve got your something old, and something new—so here’s your something borrowed.”

            Inside sat a pair of gossamer lace gloves.

            “Marta said you could borrow these,” he explained. “Now all you need is something blue.”

            “I’ll have to thank her,” she murmured, sliding them on.

            He looked back towards the door. “I better get going, sweetheart, my lunch period is almost up. I’ll see you later.”

            “Good-bye, Papa; thank you.”

            He paused at the doorframe and looked back at her.

            “You look extraordinarily like your mother, Estella,” he said quietly.     

            The door shut with a click, and Estella faced the mirror once more. The veil over her face was like a cloud, reaching the floor behind her. Though the dress was her mother’s, and therefore a little outdated, the seamstress had modernized it a bit with some silver trimmings on the hem.

            She sighed. Truthfully, it was beautiful—but she didn’t feel right in it. She lifted up the veil again and brushed at the moisture that had spilled over onto her cheeks.

            It was odd how much this emptiness in her ached. She wasn’t getting her heart broken—not really—because she had never been in love before. But somehow this felt nearly as painful; she was doomed to live a life of privilege, duty, and indifference.

            Everyone thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. It was true that she had everything: money, friends, social status, beauty, admirers… She knew she ought not to complain, yet she felt miserable. No matter how much material wealth she had, no matter how much popularity, she felt so false—like she was constantly wearing a mask. All the people she loved—her father, her friends, her housekeeper—were counting on her to do something that killed the joy within her.

            She unclasped the string of pearls—they had begun to feel like they were choking her.

            Everyone might think of her as the most fortunate girl in the world, but she felt like she was dying inside.

1906—Three Months before the Murder

            Estella was usually a composed, collected person—so the fact that her hands trembled and her lip was bleeding from being gnawed on for the past hour was saying something. Well, at least that meant there was no need to apply rouge, she thought wryly. She brushed her hair a few more times, trying not to stare at her reflection too long. But after a moment, she buried her face in her arms and did all she could not to cry.

            A soft knock came on the door.                                                                                                          

            “Estella, do you want me to lace you up?” asked Mrs. Lake through the door.

            “Yes, thank you,” she said, her voice cracking only the tiniest bit. She stood by one of the posts of her four-poster bed and clutched it in both hands so that Mrs. Lake could tie her corset up tightly, as she had done many times before. She winced at the first uncomfortable tug.

            “Just breathe in, dear,” Mrs. Lake reminded her.

            She did. Another painful yank at her ribcage from the tightening laces, yet she scarcely noticed it. The day’s events were still swimming around in her mind.

            “Everything alright, Estella?” asked her housekeeper gently.

            Estella was surprised at the question, but swallowed convulsively and nodded.

            Mrs. Lake pulled a few more strings taut. “Well, you know you can talk to me,” she said softly. “You never kept anything from me before. You used to trust me with everything, dear.”

            Estella opened her mouth, wanting to simply spill everything out. Her back was to Mrs. Lake, but somehow the old lady seemed to know better by her silence that something was wrong. For a moment, however, no words could come to her—she was drowning in her terror, and if she made a sound, she might burst into tears.

            Mrs. Lake’s voice was not wheedling; Estella knew she was more concerned than curious. “Philip called on you today, didn’t he?”

            Estella nodded. The corset was nearly laced up now, and Estella could hardly breathe—or perhaps her anxiety was that feeling like a knife in her lungs.

            “Did everything go alright?” Mrs. Lake prompted soothingly. “I always thought he was quite a gentleman, but obviously you would know better than I, having spent much more time with the man. He is such a handsome gentleman, and I think he fancies you—,”

            “He’s asked me to marry him.”

            The rushed confession was harder to say out loud than she had anticipated.

            There was silence for a moment. Estella could not tell what her housekeeper’s reaction was, but evidently she was at least stunned into momentary speechlessness.

            “Oh my,” breathed the old woman. “But that’s wonderful, Estella! Congratulations!”

            “He’d already cleared it with Father and everything,” she said, her voice sounding the tiniest bit hoarse.

            “That’s lovely,” cried Mrs. Lake. “When will the wedding be?” She pulled Estella by the shoulder to face her—but her smile faded when she caught sight of Estella’s face.

            “What’s the matter, dear?” she asked, her eyebrows creasing together in worry. “Didn’t you say yes to Philip?”

            Estella looked down. “Yes I did,” she said, almost inaudibly.

            Mrs. Lake looked faintly unsettled. “Don’t you like Philip?”

            “Of course I like him,” she replied automatically. The more correct response would have been that she didn’t dislike him. For a moment, she felt shame twist her insides. She ought to like him more, she thought ashamedly. He was a nice man, perfectly amiable, and his manners were above reproach. He had never given her the slightest reason to dislike him. He was considered by many to be handsome—and indeed, his features were well-formed and certainly pleasing to the eye.

            And yet…much as she hated to think it, there was something rather…bland about him. Physically, there was nothing especially unusual or memorable about his face—just seeped with ordinariness, just brown hair and featureless blue eyes, very even white teeth, ramrod straight posture. As to his character—though Estella felt ashamed to be thinking it—she always had difficulty in finding any personality in him at all. He did not seem to have dreams or desires of his own, only what other people expected of him. He did not dare have a fault or insecurity, or any trait that was not suitable for society; there was little she felt she could talk to him about because it was as if he was not interested in anything himself.

            Perhaps his problem was that he did not know himself well enough, she thought. He does not know himself, so how can anyone else? He was aloof to himself and the world—how could she possibly have an affectionate or warm marriage with someone like that? He was passionless enough to have been swayed like this by her father—and she was certain it had all been his design, not Philip’s—and now he had been coerced into believing that he was in love, just because it had been suggested to him, and he felt some vague admiration for her.

            “Estella, what is wrong?” Mrs. Lake insisted, interrupting her trance.

            “It’s just…” she began, unsure of how to explain without sounding terribly selfish. “It’s just that I don’t know if I really…am right for Philip…if we would be well-matched as a couple…if we’re ready for marriage…”

            Mrs. Lake smiled understandingly, taking the girl by the shoulders. “Oh, Estella, you don’t have to worry about that! Don’t be anxious about being a good wife, dear. I know you two will do well. He’s six years older than you; he can take care of you.”

            Estella nearly choked. She was missing the point, but she didn’t feel it proper to explain it completely.

            “My husband asked for my hand when I was seventeen, and I felt so nervous!” Mrs. Lake went on. “But we’ve been married for forty-one years, and have two grown-up children. With all of my doubts beforehand, I have never regretted my marriage for a single day.”

            Estella nodded, faking a smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured, but the words burned her throat a little on the way out. She hated lying.

            Was she so much of a pushover that everyone’s expectations and plans for her future were flattening her own desires? Was she just too weak to stand up for what she wanted, enough that she would sit by and watch her life slip past in a marriage she didn’t want?

            But wouldn’t it be rather improper for a lady to defy so many others’ wishes? Wouldn’t it better, kinder, more considerate to simply go along with it and make everyone else happy? Surely it was selfish to be dwelling incessantly on her own wants. Surely the only way to be mature about this was to put aside her own feelings for a moment, especially when everyone else was counting on her to do this.

            “See? It’ll all turn out, dear,” said Mrs. Lake soothingly, smiling. “Two lovely people such as you and Philip could hardly have an unpleasant life together.”

            Estella forced another painful smile on her face. “Of course,” she muttered. “Any girl would dream of marrying someone like Philip.”

            Any girl, perhaps—except her.


            Mark glanced out the window—it was raining again. He sighed. Such a rainy summer they were having, he thought.

            The pattering sound of the rain was soft and soothing, like whispers outside.

            With a start, he realized suddenly that Estella was standing right next to him, gazing out the window with an equally thoughtful expression. She leaned on the windowsill, her chin resting on her hand, unconsciously beautiful, a tiny smile on her face.

            “I like it when it rains,” she murmured. “I miss feeling the rain…”

            Mark would have come back with some retort about how he was surprised she didn’t mind it messing up her hair—but he stopped himself. She was in an odd mood; she didn’t seem to be in her usual sarcastic, argumentative disposition. Perhaps they were actually making some progress as friends, he thought hopefully.

            “I like it too,” he said seriously, leaning against the windowsill like her.

            “The cobblestone roads were always a mess when it rained,” she mused quietly, “and the paths would be covered in huge puddles that were more like ponds…and the carriages would get stuck sometimes…” She laughed a little. “The road down there looks a bit more evolved, I must say.”

            He shrugged. “We still get wet,” he said. “And we have to shovel snow off cars in the wintertime.”

            She laughed at that, but it wasn’t a mean sort of laugh.

            They sat in comfortable silence for a minute, listening to the rain and watching it drum on the grass outside.

            “What do you do for a living, anyways?” she asked him suddenly.

            He blinked, startled. “Um, well, right now I’m just a cashier at Family Fare…”

            She was frowning, obviously confused, so he tried to make his answer more explanatory for a Victorian-era girl.

            “I, um, sell things at a grocery store,” he said, “but I’m not going to be doing that my whole life. I’m still in college.”

            “Oh,” she said, eyes brightening in understanding. “So you’re a student, then? What are you learning about?”

            Her head was tilted to the side curiously. She didn’t seem to be making fun of him, but he still felt self-conscious answering.

            “I’m getting my degree in physics right now,” he said. “I’m best at science, you see. But…I’m not really sure what I want to do once I get out of college…I don’t know…I haven’t really given my future much thought, honestly,” he shrugged helplessly.

            “Well, you should,” she said quietly, smiling a little. “Don’t wait around for your life to start.”

            He smiled a little too, still baffled by her sudden softness. It was true, though—he felt a little panicked sometimes, lying awake at night, wondering where in the world his life was headed. He was in serious need of some direction.

            “You’re good with kids,” she said. “I saw you talking to Anna and Cecilia. They really like you.”

            Hm. Well that was an interesting thought. He would have to think about that later, though. Now that she was being suddenly decent, he was going to take advantage of it.

            He paused for a moment. When he dared to ask, it was in the gentlest voice he could manage. “What happened to your mom, Estella?”

            She stared at him in surprise. “What do you mean?”

            “You always talk about your father and your stepmother and stepbrothers—but you never say a word about your mother. She must not have been around when you died—I mean, people didn’t really get divorced in 1906, so…”

            Estella went back to looking out the window, a pensive expression on her face. “She died giving birth to me. I was the only child, the precious only reminder of my mother to my father, and so he doted on me and loved me with everything he was capable of…” She trailed away thoughtfully. But then the corners of her lips twitched. “He spoiled me terribly, of course,” she added with amusement.

            Mark chuckled a little; he was glad that she wasn’t afraid to talk about it.

            But her amusement faded into a mask of quiet sadness. “When I died,” she said softly, “I had hoped that I would be seeing her again.” She sighed. “But I had to wait. And still I wait. When my father died, I hoped that then I could speak to him, explain everything, tell him I was sorry—,”

            She broke herself off, apparently trying to remain in control of her emotions.

            “But he moved straight on, knowing he was going to see my mother—thinking he was going to see me too. I wonder if they’re impatient for me…”

            Mark frowned. “What are you talking about? Didn’t they become ghosts too? Doesn’t everyone?”

            She looked up at him, surprised. “Oh, heavens, no!” she said. “I hope that only the smallest percentage would have to go through all of this. No, only people who die with some kind of unfinished business, or something that ties them to the earth somehow, would stay. And hopefully, they will not stay forever.”

            “I don’t understand,” he admitted.

            “Souls are sort of like…oh I don’t know…like balloons,” she explained. “If they’re free, if they’re at peace, then when they die they’ll just float right on up through the atmosphere to the next life—to heaven, or whatever comes next, you know. But if something’s tying them down, like an anchor—the injustice of my murder, for instance—then they’re trapped. That’s what ghosts are—we’re trapped. We’re in the in-between place—we don’t belong anywhere just yet.”

            Mark digested this silently. “That sounds kind of…sad,” he said, his eyes crinkling sympathetically.

            She smiled ruefully. “I’m neither here nor there—that’s why I can’t feel anything, because I’m not really here. I’m just sort of…nowhere, I guess. That’s why we can become invisible, or walk through walls, or appear in the dream realm.”

            Mark frowned at the last in the list. “What are you talking about?”

            Estella’s smile became a little happier. “Well, we’re not bound by the rules of reality like you are. Since I’m not a physical being anymore, I can pretty much do anything I want. Including appearing in people’s dreams.”

            “But that’s impossible,” said Mark, nonplussed. “When you’re dreaming, you don’t go anywhere—it’s just happening in your head. It’s just a jumbled-up message from your subconscious.”

            “Yes, but like I said, we’re not governed by the rules of reality. I’m just a soul now, so I can do what would be impossible for you. I haven’t got a body like you do—well, I do, but it has been rotting six feet under for a century. If I’m not dust by now, I must at least be a skeleton…”

            She trailed off, musing casually about the most macabre subject Mark had ever discussed.

            “So anyways,” he said, to redirect the conversation, “that must be how you tried to warn those other girls.”

            That stopped her cold. Her face fell. “Yes, that’s how I tried to warn them. But I wasn’t as good at controlling it back then—I couldn’t control what I made them see. They saw me on the rope, I think—that’s what made them wake up, screaming in terror. I never could get through to any of them.”

            Mark cringed, glad that she could not know that he had had some very similar nightmares about her—it would do no good to tell her that he had once been afraid of her.

            “It wasn’t your fault, Estella,” he said firmly. “You did the best you could.”

            She didn’t look at him, but she smiled a little at the windowsill. “Thank you, Mark.”

            After a minute of silence, she did look at him finally. “So what happened to your father?” she asked kindly.

            He blinked. “How did you know—,”

            “I’ve seen your mother several times; you talk about her. But I’ve never heard you breathe a word about your father.”

            “He died, too,” he muttered. “There was a car crash, when I was six…”

            Estella paused for a moment. “So you remember him, then?” she asked carefully.

            Mark nodded. He hadn’t actually thought about his dad in a long time—his mother never mentioned him if she could help it. She had never been with anyone since, he mused to himself now; she must have never gotten over him. His insides clenched guiltily. His mom would never admit to still being sad about that, but he still should have realized. An eternally sunny person, it was hard to imagine his mother being depressed—she was always thinking about others, which must have been why she concealed her grief.

            His mother had raised him all by herself, struggling to make ends meet for years, trying to sustain a job that would support her and her son, working hard to pay for his education, teaching him right and wrong and loving him with all she knew how; yet never once had she complained or betrayed the slightest hint of bitterness. She remained optimistic.

            I ought to show her that I appreciate her more, he thought to himself in sudden remorse. I should thank her more often for all she’s done for me. I should tell her that I love her more.

            “That’s harder than never meeting them, I’m sure,” Estella said softly. “I’m sorry.”

            Mark snapped out of his reverie. “It was a really long time ago…but thanks. I guess both of us grew up missing one parent, huh?”

            So they at least had that one thing in common, he thought.

            She smiled, seeming relieved that he wasn’t grief-stricken at the reminder. Then she frowned, tilting her head to the side again. “How old are you, Mark?”

            “Nineteen,” he answered, surprised. “Why?”

            She shrugged. “Just curious, I guess. I would have thought you were older.”

            He decided not to press it, but he still wondered what that cryptic remark could mean.

            Lying awake in bed that night, Mark stared up at the ceiling, unable to close his eyes. Every time he did, he would see piercing dark eyes beneath his eyelids…

            “Stop it,” he muttered to himself. He must be losing his mind. Couldn’t he think of anything else?

            It was ridiculous that he had had butterflies in his stomach that day, just because she’d spoken to him. After all, didn’t they talk every day? There was nothing unusual about that.

            Even now, when he was simply thinking about her, he still had that fluttering feeling in his stomach, like he’d missed a few steps coming down the staircase.


            He knew, of course, that he’d had a crush on her for some time. Pathetic though it was, useless as it was, even though she barely showed him more notice than a fly, even though she apparently thought of him only with the most casual contempt…he couldn’t help it. He had a sick kind of feeling that he was dragging himself to his doom by caring about her—but what else could he do?

            There were moments, occasionally, when she didn’t act like that—when she didn’t seem bored by his mere presence, or cruelly amused by his awkwardness. Sometimes, perhaps on accident, a different kind of attitude shone through, an unmistakable tenderness for fellow human beings, almost like she was a completely different person.

            Did she have multiple personality disorder?

            Nonetheless, even her haughtiness was intriguing. Even her cold pride was fascinating. And those rare moments when he could coax something else out besides her hardened exterior were simply an irresistible lure. How could he stay away from her now?

            She must simply have a hard time opening up about her true feelings, he supposed. What else could make her have such mood swings, really? She had gone through an awfully traumatic experience. He had to believe she wasn’t cynical to the core. There were still those rare moments when she displayed a rather different outlook…

            It was ridiculous to entertain the hope that there was anything more to her than the scornful, patronizing girl she seemed to be, yet somehow…it just didn’t feel right. It just didn’t seem like that was really her character. Much as he usually dismissed the idea of intuition, he just couldn’t help it this time. He felt compassion for her.

            He jumped out of bed, starting to pace. He was never going to fall asleep if he didn’t stop thinking about this. That swooping feeling in his stomach remained, try as he might to suppress it.

            And those lovely eyes seemed to be looking at him still, burned into the back of his brain.

            It didn’t really matter how little she cared for him; he had already dragged himself down this path before he consciously realized it. And even though she was arrogant and sometimes unkind, he didn’t believe that was really her. She was hiding herself for some reason, and he would find some way to bring her real character out.

            Maybe one of these days he could win her over… and if there was even that sliver of a chance, he would take it.

            He sprawled out on his bed, trying not to think of her, but it didn’t matter. She crept back into his thoughts anyways. He sighed.

            Sometime around two o’clock in the morning, he began to drift off. Feeling slightly humiliated, he at last admitted one truth to himself in a whisper.

            “I love her, I love her, I love her…”

            He fell asleep eventually, plagued by dreams involving a pair of blazing dark eyes.

            When he got outside, the first thing he was saw was his mother, on her knees in the garden, pulling weeds. The end of her nose was very pink, even though she had a sun hat on, and strands of honey-colored hair was escaping her short pigtails.

            “Hey, Mark,” she called, smiling.

            “Hey, Mom,” he said, kneeling down on the dirt next to her. “Do you need help?”

            “Sure—you can start planting these,” she said in a slightly breathless voice, jerking her head at a planter full of daisies as she struggled to eradicate a dandelion.

            He grabbed a pair of gardening gloves and got to work. They just planted things for a few minutes in companionable quiet—that was the great thing about his mom, he thought. She isn’t nosy, and she doesn’t feel the need to chatter during every silence.

            “Um…Mom?” he asked tentatively.

            “Mm-hmm?” she said vaguely.

            He was terrible at making up stories, or lying in any form, so he was going to have to make this as close to the truth as possible. “Er…I kind of need your advice.”

            She looked up at him, surprised. “Well, sure, honey, what is it?”

            “I’ve got this friend who’s been telling me about his problem,” he hedged, “and I want to know what you think.”

            “Oh, a friend,” said his mother. She hid her smirk rather well.

            “Yeah, well, he’s not sure what to do or what to think about this situation…See, he’s met this girl—this insanely beautiful girl, and he’s crazy about her. But he has no idea if she even gives a damn about him.”

            His mother pressed her lips together. “Hmm…it sounds like your friend needs to find out.”

            “But how?”

            “Well…how does…this girl act around your friend?”

            He bit his lip. “That’s just the thing. She acts all condescending and stuff, but he can’t help but care about her anyways.”

            She dug her spade into the soil as she thought. “Does this girl act like that around everyone?”

            “Well…he hasn’t seen her around a whole lot of people…but she did—does, I mean—have a lot of friends. She couldn’t exactly be a complete jerk around everyone and still be that popular. Lots of people liked her—I swear she just attracts everybody.”

            “So she’s nice to everyone except your friend?”

            “That’s what it seems like, at least.”

            “When does she seem more real?”

            Mark paused, frowning. “What?”

            “When does she seem more real—when is it more like she doesn’t have to think about it—when she’s nice or when she’s a jerk?”

            “I don’t know,” he said, taken aback. “But every once in a while she’s rather decent, even to him—like she’s nice for a second because she’s slipped up or something. Is that just wishful thinking?”

            “Hmm…” said his mother again, thinking hard. “It sounds to me like this girl either doesn’t want you to know that she likes you, or doesn’t even want to admit it to herself.”

            He was so surprised that he didn’t even protest that she wasn’t playing along.


            She laughed. “There’s no need to look so stunned, Mark. Girls aren’t that complicated to figure out, once you realize where they’re coming from.”

            He smiled wryly. “Yeah—that’s what girls themselves say, of course.”

            She laughed again. “No, Mark, I would really say it sounds to me like she likes you. I wouldn’t give up on this girl, whoever she is. If it turns out I’m wrong, then I’m sorry. But she might not be acting according to her thoughts—there might be more to her than it appears.”

            “I just can’t figure her out, though! She’ll act one way one day, and completely different the next—like she’s got an evil twin or something.”

            His mother smiled. “She probably likes you a lot, then, and has no idea how to handle it. It sounds to me like she doesn’t know how to act around you.”

            He thought about that for a minute. Surely, his mother was wrong—or maybe even just trying to make him feel better. He could not allow himself to hope.

            He looked down, shoveling some earth over the daisy roots. “Thanks for your help, Mom.”


            They sat for a while, working silently again. Then she glanced up at him.

            “Are you going to tell me who this mystery girl is?” she asked.

            He pursed his lips. “Not really, no.”

            She laughed out loud again, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “Alright, fine! I was just asking.”

            She changed the subject then, to Mark’s relief, and they continued working and chatting the rest of the morning. Just a small corner of Mark’s mind was wondering whether or not his mother was right…




            The leaves under Mark’s feet crunched loudly, but Estella glided over them soundlessly as the autumn afternoon went on. It was a gusty day; the wind whispered in the trees and whipped through his hair as he shivered, sending his long black coat flapping around him.

            He followed her as she walked, almost unthinkingly, until they reached Perkins Hill Cemetery.

            Mark thought he knew why they were here, and the thought terrified him.


            “Hmm?” She turned to look at him as though only just remembering he was there.

            “Random question, but—what’s your favorite kind of flower?”

            She stared at him like he had two heads, but answered, “Primroses…why?”

            He shrugged. “Oh, no reason.”

            She wove through the gravestones, coming to a stop next to a particularly weathered-looking headstone. An angel with half her face worn away sat atop the tombstone.



Rest in Peace

            Estella gave a wry chuckle as he read it. “At least they meant well,” she said.

            Her voice, always echoing around him, sounded like part of the murmuring breeze—in fact, her translucent image, faded all the more by the sunlight, also seemed to be part of the wind, hair and lace tossing in the unseen gust.

            “Mark,” she whispered, turning towards him again. Her voice raised the hair on the back of his neck, but it wasn’t merely shivers of fear running up and down his spine when she reached for his hand. “I realize I’ve never thanked you properly.” Her hand passed through his, and she smiled sadly. “I can never repay you enough.”

            It was, as always, like they were separated by a veil; for some reason today this made him sadder than ever. Inexplicably, his eyes stung, and he had to clear his throat before he could speak.

            “I didn’t do it to get appreciation,” he croaked.

            “I know,” she murmured, looking down. “But that doesn’t erase my gratitude. The truth is out there, just as I wanted. I haven’t carried any more secrets to the grave.” She glanced up at him again, dark eyes surprisingly soft. “Except one, that is—and I ought to divulge that one before I leave.”

            “You’re going?” The words were strangely reluctant to leave his throat, and they choked him a little on the way out.

            She smiled again, but it was almost as tragic as seeing her cry. “You knew I would have to leave sometime. I’m free now…”

            She closed her eyes and whispered, “Oh, that’s a lovely feeling. Like I’ve gotten chains removed that have held me down for a century. My soul is free, finally.”

            He tried to smile too, but somehow his face wouldn’t move the right way. “I’m glad, Estella.”

            Her eyes flew open, and the happiness in them faded. “Mark, I’m sorry. For everything.”

            “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”

            “Yes, I do.”

            Was that a tear running down her face? Estella was crying at the thought of hurting Mark?

            “I’ve been nothing but careless towards you—at best—ever since we met. And all you’ve ever done is set me free.”

            She was so close to him now, he could smell that cloud of perfume that hung around her—lovely, flowery, yet aged somehow…like rose petals pressed in a book for centuries, or lavender locked in a trunk to keep a dress smelling clean.

            “I’m sorry,” she whispered again, her voice shaking with tears. “It wasn’t because I cared nothing for you—far from it. I was trying to protect you, and myself, by staying cold—don’t you understand? I knew I couldn’t stay; I could never be with you. I would break your heart. So…if I never let on that I cared about you, perhaps you would never feel likewise, and neither of us would get hurt.”

            Mark was stunned. He could hardly breathe.

            “I know I can’t adequately explain and apologize for all that, let alone make up for it,” she said. “But I’m going to at least try. You remember how I said my father had forced me into a marriage I wanted nothing to do with? It wasn’t until decades after my death that I understood why. It wasn’t so that the money would stay in our family, it wasn’t about my father’s business having an heir, it wasn’t about the social advantages—my father was worried about me. He was trying to protect me. He worried about what would happen to me when he was gone if I had no husband to take care of me, and he wanted me to be safe should anything happen to him. It wasn’t because he was being harsh on me—but because he loved me. Can’t you understand that I was trying to do the same for you?”

            Dazed, Mark tried to inhale. It didn’t work.

            “I’m sorry,” she said again. “But I learned a long time ago that love of any kind can break you—and it probably will.”

            “That didn’t stop me,” he muttered.

            “I know.” She covered her mouth with her hand as she tried to control her trembling voice. “That’s the worst part of it! I was horrible to you, nothing but cruel, and yet you didn’t give up on me! How in the name of heaven did you even put up with me, let alone love me anyways?”

            His lips twitched. “Because I knew that wasn’t the real you. And you really weren’t that bad—I think you’re just feeling guilty… Was I that obvious?”

            This finally seemed to keep her sorrow at bay. She laughed, “To say the least.”

            This was his chance; it had already been acknowledged—why couldn’t he say anything? He wasn’t going to get another opportunity.

            But she was speaking again, her face ashamed. “I know I made out like I thought you were inferior, and I have to correct that, too,” she murmured, looking down. “It’s the very opposite—you understand, don’t you? I admire you, Mark! I could never be like you if I tried.” Her words gained passion as she spoke, and she seemed to be begging for his understanding.

            He was stunned. He couldn’t speak. He could only blink rapidly a few times.

            Her previously agonized eyes sparked with a touch of amusement at this.

            “See, that’s another reason I adore you—you don’t even believe people could be attracted to you,” she laughed, shaking her head in amazement. “You’re genuine, and you’re sincere, and the humblest person I’ve met in a hundred years,” she whispered, the words coming so naturally from her mouth, he knew she was being completely honest, her hands clasped together over her heart.

            He tried to say something—to somehow explain how much he wanted to take her in his arms and shield her from the world, how he wanted to stay by her side and protect her from everything she was afraid of, how he would love her with every part of him because she was a part of his very being now—but the words wouldn’t come.

            He forced the words out with difficulty, licking his lips. His mouth was very dry. “I…I love you, Estella.”

            She smiled tenderly, seeming to understand all the things he didn’t say.

            “It killed me to be so awful to you, Mark. I’m sorry it was all for nothing.” One white hand reached out and stroked his face—it felt like the caress of an icy wind. She bent and whispered in his ear, “I love you too, Mark. That’s why I acted that way—can’t you see? I love you.”

            Her silvery voice made him shiver, like every time, but it was a different kind of fear. His stomach clenched at her touch, and he found himself wanting more. The lack of contact between them ached.

            The breeze whipped around them more strongly now. Estella laid her head against his shoulder, listening to his breath come and go, his heartbeat—a sound she probably hadn’t heard in the longest time.

            “If you’re leaving soon, maybe you ought to get it over with.” The longer they stood there, longing to be together, the harder it would be to separate.

            He looked down, only to see her looking up at him, the same longing mirrored in her eyes.

            “Maybe you’re right,” she said, pulling back a few inches. “But first…”

            She leaned in and kissed him gently.

            Her lips were cold, but he didn’t care…her hands on his neck were like ice, but he didn’t care…her dark curls, waving in the breeze, tried to escape from his fingers, so he clutched her even tighter… she was so close he ought to have felt her heart beating, but then—

            This was impossible, wasn’t it?

            He opened his eyes, and the spell was broken.

            Half an inch away from him, Estella gradually faded again, no more substantial than air. It was like she’d been using all her energy to try and become solid for him—and for a moment, they’d wanted it badly enough that it felt real.

            Her eyes grew sorrowful again.

            “I’m sorry,” she said, yet again. “Maybe I shouldn’t have—“

            “Don’t apologize,” he said quickly.

            “I’ll see you again, one day,” she breathed, taking a step back. With a tiny wave, she slowly faded into a formless, nebulous cloud, but her voice remained intact. “Thank you for setting me free. If you can let go of me…and if I can let go of you…then I can leave.”

            He blinked quickly to clear the sudden moisture from his eyes. “Good-bye, Estella.”

            The white wind dissolved, until she faded completely from sight.

            She was gone.

            With a heavy sigh, Mark left the cemetery, his hands in his pockets as the heavy iron gate swung closed behind him. He scuffed his feet along the sidewalk, kicking leaves around. He wouldn’t have to protect her from anything anymore: she was utterly safe now, even from the dark and the shadows. Even from her own frightened mind.

            Cecilia and Anna were waiting. They had watched from the fence.

            They walked silently down the street for a few blocks, until Anna said thoughtfully, “You know, for a minute there, she almost looked solid.”

            Mark didn’t answer, as he was suddenly very busy cleaning his glasses with his sleeve.

            “Mark,” said Cecilia in a small voice, “is the lady gone?”

            He swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “The lady’s gone.”

            The rustling, dry dead leaves on the pavement tossed in the wind, and they almost sounded like a whispery voice.

            Good-bye, Mark…